REVIEW: The 50 Year Argument

The 50 Year Argument
(USA, 97 min.)
Dir. Martin Scorsese, David Tedeschi

Reviewed by Patrick Mullen

Book lovers rejoice. There is a well-versed doc perfectly catered to the literate crowd. The 50 Year Argument makes an unabashedly intelligent take on the legacy of one of the greatest institutions for the literati, The New York Review of Books, as directors Martin Scorsese and David Tedeschi interview an impressive range of brilliant minds who speak of their experiences contributing to the Review. The chorus of rule breakers and innovators makes The 50 Year Argument essential viewing for doc fans.

One might approach The 50 Year Argument assuming that a group of New York intellectuals is an insular circle, but the conversation the core of this film is vividly lucid even though it’s very academic. The 50 Year Argument looks beyond rhetorical flourishes and witty reviews by situating the text of The New York Review of Books in the greater social epoch on which it comments. The film looks less at books themselves and more at the way literature reflects and shapes the worlds of writers and readers. The best writer is one filled with experience to fuel his or her thoughts, and The 50 Year Argument assuredly tips its pen at the Review’s thirst for looking beyond the text.

Writers such as Michael Chabon, Zoë Heller, and Joan Didion discuss how the countercultural voice of The New York Review of Books affords a refreshing outlet for intelligent debate that fails to find a forum in other cultural pockets. Essays on feminism, reflections on race, and indictments of moral panics characterize the feature articles described in the film that help society turn the page. One particular interlude that grills Norman Mailer, for example, shows the necessity of providing an outlet for strong progressive writers in the face of backwards-looking intellectuals. Mailer’s misogynistic curmudgeonliness is un-PC, but Susan Sontag’s pointed response gives The 50 Year Argument one of its strongest punctuation marks within a stirringly conversant film.

The clarity and insight of the stories in The 50 Year Argument shows that the magazine’s indebtedness to wordsmithery actually furthers the greater social commentaries included in the table of contents, since the contributors voice necessary points of view in highly readable arguments. It’s one thing to tell people an argument they need to read; it’s another to tell them an argument they need to read in a way that makes them want to read it.

Amidst the circle of contributors is reigning editor Bob Silvers, who has edited The New York Review of Books since it began. Scorsese and Tedeschi could easily make a persuasive film simply by following Silvers—he still has his finger on the cultural pulse even though many people his age can’t work an iPhone—as he guides, challenges, and nurtures his writers. This counter-cultural outlet theref remains current thanks to the highly attuned minds behind the operation. Blogs, tweets, and other contemporary forms of writing help inform the über-literate democracy of the Review’s topical voice. Staying fresh helps the Review stay relevant, since one notable sequence examining a report of Tahrir Square emphatically shows that a better media outlet is one that tells the story accurately and fairly, rather than one which breaks the story first but flawed.

The same level of care and craft must be attributed to the film itself. The 50 Year Argument is as solidly and delightfully crafted as the very articles it praises, for Scorsese and Tedeschi (who edited Scorsese’s Rolling Stones doc Shine a Light) assemble a tightly and spotlessly mounted essay that’s a delight to watch. This highly favourable portrait of The New York Review of Books shows that there is and always will be a pocket of readers, writers, and publishes eager to create and consume intelligent prose. In an age where writing skills (or skillz) are in decline, newspapers are folding, and printed books are losing their shelf life, The 50 Year Argument makes a welcome argument that good, intelligent work is the foundation of any enduring institution.

Now playing at the Bloor Hot Docs Cinema as of January 23, 2015.